In November 1993, I was on a mission. At the age of 21, I wanted to change the world, starting with Birzeit University, the second-largest Palestinian university in the West Bank, situated near Ramallah, in the heart of the occupied territories.
Back then I had made a name for myself with my nationalist poetry and my first poetry collection was published a year earlier in Gaza. It was called The Alphabets of Decision. Each assortment of verses started with a letter in the Arabic alphabet, going in order. “It was time for the poor and peasants of Palestine to articulate their political agenda, rejecting the entire culture of political defeat,” I wrote something to that effect in the introduction.
Birzeit was my platform and my audience quickly multiplied. My last performance was in front of a crowd of thousands, who cheered, chanted and, once I concluded my call for rebellion against Oslo’s “Gaza-Jericho First” agreement, and the assured defeat it heralded, we marched outside the campus, only to be greeted with Israeli army bullets and tear gas.
That was anything but a fatalistic act compelled by the fervour of youth. At the time, local, Israeli and international media were eagerly awaiting the student council election results in Birzeit. A leading hub for Palestinian nationalism – to be compared to Najah University of Nablus – Birzeit was the first litmus test for late PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s Oslo “peace process”. The idea was this: if the Fatah (al-Shabiba) supporters won the elections, it would be understood as a symbolic popular mandate that the Palestinian people were in favour of what turned out to be political folly and a strategic calamity that has since then institutionalised the Israeli occupation and Palestinian division.
Palestinians are highly politicised people, and utterly sensitive to any attempt at squandering or bargaining their rights. Oslo was but the last of such attempts that have spanned the last 70 years of history – from the Rogers Plan, to the Village Leagues, and more.
The Birzeit student elections were our opportunity to send an early message that Oslo was born dead and that any “process” that negotiates the most basic human rights of Palestinians is fully rejected.
As Palestine’s rich were vying for the economic dividends of peace, and Diaspora elites that were affiliated with Arafat and his Fatah party were ready to “return” and claim position and prestige, the daughters and sons of refugees, peasants and labourers of Palestine stood firm in Birzeit. Sure, the language here is loaded with socialist class references, but truthfully that was what it was. We were the “masses” as we gathered in Birzeit from every corner of the occupied territories, unified by an eagerness to learn, but also compelled by nationalistic priorities.
A coalition was quickly formed between Islamic student groups and the socialists. It was also a formidable alliance that brought Muslims and Christians together, where a Palestinian identity took centre stage, sidelining Islamic and socialist references and ideologies. We were afraid for our country and our people. To think that at that age we possessed the foresight and political consciousness to predict the disaster of Oslo, while many intelligent and experienced men and women genuinely celebrated and anticipated “peace” should tell you much about the intellectual prowess of Palestine’s youth.
In November 1993, the Israeli army was on a mission too. Nightly raids in the towns of Birzeit, Abu Qash, and other villages where many students resided, targeted leaders of the anti-Oslo movement. Some of us fled to the mountains to escape the army’s wrath. We plotted ways to reach the university on election day via nearby hills. Others stayed at the university for days. Others were not so lucky, as they were arrested and jailed, while some were tortured. Many Gaza students were deported back to the strip.
Fatah supporters, although they didn’t endorse the Israeli action, benefited from it. A favourable Birzeit vote was the needed impetus to sell Oslo as a popular demand, to hail its architects as national heroes, and to shut out the opposition – the debate altogether – as irrelevant.
Independent vote monitors finally emerged from what I believe was the engineering school, joined by representatives of the factions that contested the elections. The leader of the group took the stage and declared the results: al-Quds Awalan bloc (Jerusalem First) won.
That was us. And Jerusalem First was our answer to Arafat’s men’s deferral of discussing the status of Jerusalem – along with other fundamental issues, such as the rights of refugees, borders, etc – until the “final status negotiations,” which were never actualised.
There was a pause of a single second that felt much longer, as if thousands of us, who camped at the campus until late at night, wanted to eternalise and attempt to fathom the meaning of that victory. A single second that was loaded with meanings, with oppressive memories of those who died, of those in jail, of those persisting in squalid refugee camps fashioning hope from desperation and standing strong. A single second followed by an uproar, an incredible euphoria which I am yet to witness ever since.
“With our bloods .. with our souls .. we will sacrifice for you Palestine,” we chanted in tandem, the echoes of our chants penetrating the darkness, reaching the ears of Israeli soldiers who prepared for action. We roamed the university in a rare moment of victory and hope, feeling that the bond that ultimately unified us was much stronger than all of the obstacles that stood between us.
It was Oslo’s first crisis. The victory was followed by a massive crackdown, arrests, imprisonments and deportation. Like many others, I was sent back to Gaza. It was the end of my academic career at Birzeit, never to see the campus again, or to have coffee with my peers at the main cafeteria ever again. Ameed, Ahmed, Abdulhadi, and all the rebels of the past, remained in the past.
Since then, the Israeli crackdowns on Birzeit students became the joint responsibility of Palestinian Authority (PA) goons as well. When the PA was established in 1994, terror in Palestinian campuses became the norm. Joint security coordination between the PA and the Israeli army made sure that rebellious Palestinians were punished severely, and when necessary, eliminated altogether.
After the 2007 Hamas-Fatah split in Gaza, the crackdowns on Fatah’s enemies in campuses became harsher than ever before and the margin for free expression was limited to the point of suffocation. The PA became the new occupier, and Israeli soldiers watched from a distance, only getting involved when PA security required a helping hand.
Yet when submissiveness was assured, Birzeit rose once more in a display of people’s power similar to that of November 1993. On 22 April, Fatah was once more defeated as Hamas-affiliated supporters won a convincing majority by winning 22 seats. The socialist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, harvested five more, leaving Fatah supporters with only 19 seats. The students were speaking of a coalition, another symbolic gesture that the one party role is not a Palestinian quality.
While top Fatah leaders are promising to study and investigate, examine the evidence and reform their political agenda that led to the defeat, some are suggesting that these will be the last student elections in the West Bank for a while. It is understood that Fatah’s defeat is a reflection of a larger phenomenon that speaks of the dissatisfaction with that Oslo culture that my generation fought against, and ferociously so, some 22 years ago.
The pessimists are not wrong. Abbas remains in “power” since his election as the head of the PA in 2005, with no further elections required. No legislative elections have been held since Hamas won the majority of the vote in 2006 either, for similar outcomes are to be expected.
Yet despite the limited margins of freedom in Palestine – due to the Israeli occupation and its PA contractors – Birzeit roared once more, reflecting a larger trend of courage and fearlessness that began in Gaza, but is echoing in every corner of the West Bank.
And as a member of a past generation at Birzeit, I would like to take my hat, or red kuffiyeh off, and tell the students of Birzeit, Najah, al-Quds, Bethlehem and elsewhere: please finish the job we started. Democracy is your vehicle and the freedom of your people should always be your ultimate goal.